Climate change adaptation: what's water and sanitation got to do with it? - podcast

18 min read
Fatimata Coulibaly, 29, a member of the Benkadi women's group who is in charge of water monitoring and management, taking a reading of the water meter of the water tower, Kakounouso, Samabogo, Circle of Bla, Segou Region, Mali, February 2019.
Image: WaterAid/ Basile Ouedraogo

Many people around the world are experiencing droughts, storm surges, and temperature extremes, and just getting access to clean water, a decent toilet or good hygiene is increasingly difficult. But, as our report with the University of East Anglia revealed, access to water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) is also key to helping people cope with these effects of climate change.

In WaterAid's first Twitter Space, colleagues from across the organisation discussed climate change adaptation and the links to WASH.

The speakers included:

  • Jonathan Farr, Senior Policy Analyst
  • Hannah Crichton-Smith, Senior Advisor – System Strengthening
  • Tseguereda Abraham, Head of Advocacy and System Strengthening, WaterAid Ethiopia
  • Priya Nath, Senior Advisor Equality – Inclusion and Rights
  • Jesse Danku, Head of Sustainable Programmes, WaterAid Ghana
  • Caroline Maxwell, Advocacy Advisor – Water and Climate (host)

Listen to the podcast


Caroline Maxwell: Hello and welcome to The WASH Up, WaterAid's new podcast all about policy, practice and advocacy. Whether you're a water, sanitation or hygiene expert, or just interested in learning more about WaterAid's work, this is the podcast for you. I'm Caroline Maxwell, WaterAid's Advocacy Advisor for Water and Climate, and today we're bringing  you a recording of our first ever Twitter Space, where we discussed the links between water, sanitation and hygiene, and climate change adaptation. I started by asking Jonathan Farr, our Senior Policy Analyst, why water is important for climate change adaptation.

Jon Farr: It's a really good question and something that's very pertinent to WaterAid and the countries where we work, because the sad reality is that climate change is happening and it's happening now, and we're already seeing some of the worst impacts of climate change taking place in some of the countries where we work – whether it's recent hurricanes in South Asia or parts of southern Africa. So the first message is that the absolute global priority has to be cutting carbon as quickly as possible. But even if we were able to meet our international climate targets – and at the moment we're not on track to do that, but we really need to be – we're still going to have some locked-in impacts of climate change.

And what are the impacts of climate change? Well, the atmosphere is getting hotter. The world is getting hotter, which means that rainfall patterns will be disrupted. And so water and rainfall that people have relied on for generations and centuries will change its behaviour and leave people, who already had scarce access to water, at risk. There are two billion people without safely managed access to water, 700 million people without even basic access – they're going to struggle. They're going to struggle to cope with what's happening. They were already struggling, and climate change will make that worse and worse. And if carbon keeps going up, those people who have scant carbon emissions to speak of will be the ones paying the price and picking up the burden. And when we talk about these communities, it's often women and young girls who have to bear that responsibility. So they're already providing these climate resilient behaviours and innovations that the world needs to see and they shouldn't have to. So water is a critical issue.

If you're asking, what does a world look like where we've adapted to climate change or where we're preparing to adapt to climate change, you have to get on top of water. We have to make sure that people can access it safely. We have to make sure that those water resources, the quality of those water resources and the amounts of water available, is protected and managed appropriately. And even with the best will in the world, we ought to start looking at the real threats and hazards and risks. So this has to be the next priority, if we cut carbon. But then if we're asking how do we adapt to global warming, then we need to look at water immediately and scale up the investment, make it a top political priority. And not just at a global level, but translating that to action on the ground and ensuring that those people most under threat, [that] they're at the front of the queue for climate finance, for government action and for the global movement to ensure that we have a greener, cleaner, more resilient future.

Caroline Maxwell: Thank you very much, Jonathan. That was a really helpful explanation because often I find, when you talk about climate change, people think it's just about cutting carbon. And yes, that is definitely the case. It's very important. But we've got to remember what impact it has for, like you said, the 700 million people who still don't have access to basic water. So thank you, Jonathan.

We would like to now move on to our next speaker, Hannah. Hannah Crichton-Smith is our Senior Advisor for System Strengthening. And Hannah, often we hear about this term climate resilience, and so what does climate resilient WASH actually mean?

Hannah Crichton-Smith: Thanks, Caroline. Yeah, it's a really, really important question. And we often hear "climate resilient WASH" being bandied around, but very little about definitions of what that means, so we've come up with the definition of what it means for WaterAid. So climate resilient WASH means water, sanitation and hygiene services and behaviours that continue to work and benefit people within the context of a changing climate, or which are appropriately restored following climate shocks. So, as Jonathan has alluded to in in his answer, for people to be resilient to climate change, they need a reliable, good quality water supply, and sanitation and hygiene facilities, that ensure when climate shocks hit – such as things like flooding – they're not exposed to diseases and other health hazards, and they're better able to withstand the difficulties that climate change brings if they have these basic services. And at WaterAid, we seek to enhance people's resilience to climate change by improving their access to climate resilient WASH.

It's important to remember, and I think Jonathan mentioned this in his answer, that climate threats look different in different places, and they often combine with existing hazards and existing vulnerabilities. So when we talk about existing vulnerabilities, we're really talking about gender and social inequalities, people's age, health status, socioeconomic status, but also things like rising demand for water. There's a huge growing demand for water globally for different purposes, from different sectors. There's growing issues of water pollution, industrial pollution linked also with poor sanitation and poor urban planning, and already existing climate variability, all of which are impacting on people's WASH already. Climate change exacerbates those existing vulnerabilities and hazards. So often, climate change is the exacerbating factor, but it may not be the biggest threat when you consider these other hazards and these other vulnerabilities that are also already playing into people's lives and are affecting their access to WASH. Which is why we're really trying to understand what these numerous hazards are, what these vulnerabilities are in the places in which we're working and to to use that information to determine how best to address and respond to them.

Often we hear about building things stronger and better and more solid, but we know from recent reports that very little can withstand cyclones and severe storms. We see huge destruction of people's houses and schools, health centres and other buildings. So really, when we talk about climate resilient WASH, we're really talking about helping to ensure that these WASH services are appropriately restored after climate shocks hit. So supporting governments and service providers, like utilities, and communities to have the right amount of money, plans in place, response plans, data, skills, materials and equipment that's needed to repair and rehabilitate and replace WASH when it's been damaged. So it's about preparedness, ensuring that there are processes and mechanisms in place to ensure that WASH is restored. And obviously, depending on the context, there may be some instances where there can be structural changes to some of the infrastructure that's installed. But we often find that those structural changes can be quite costly to install, which means that local governments or local service providers are unlikely to be able to sustain that infrastructure on an ongoing basis or to to replicate those kinds of services at scale. So we do very much focus on that preparedness and response work to ensure that people are ready to restore services.

Caroline: Thanks so much, Hannah. That was really helpful because often you hear people talk about climate resilient WASH and it's hard to really understand, so you've really broken that down. And as you mentioned, it'd be great to maybe hear a bit more about what that looks like in different country contexts. So we're going to take a virtual flight over to the continent of Africa, and I'd like to welcome Tseguereda Abraham. Tseguereda is our Head of Advocacy and Systems Strengthening for WaterAid Ethiopia, and she's also our Regional Advocacy Manager for East Africa. So, Tseguereda, what are the barriers women face in accessing water for their needs, for sanitation, for hygiene during climate change?

Tseguereda Abraham: I think Jonathan already mentioned how the most vulnerable end up paying the price for the changing climate. So women face more risks and greater burdens from the impacts of climate change, actually, and they face many barriers to accessing climate resilient WASH services. So what does it mean when WASH facilities are not sustainable and they fail to be resilient to changes in climate? Women and girls are highly impacted, and they will have to spend more time walking to fetch water, which will take time away from school and other productive activities. With sickness in the family due to water-borne diseases, they will spend more time taking care of others in their family. As the major caretakers as well, women will also be impacted by the reduction in household hygiene, so there will be more problems related to COVID-19 and other communicable diseases. They will not be able to manage menstrual hygiene properly. And a lot of studies in Ethiopia and elsewhere in the region shows that there is a great correlation between the increase of girls missing school and the lack of water and training facilities in schools. Also, what we experience in Ethiopia, especially, [is that] women are also more likely to be victims of violence looking for water from their home.

However, women are also part of the solution. They can play a critical role in laying the foundations for a climate resilient system. For instance, in WaterAid projects related to climate resilient WASH, women are empowered to be change leaders on successful adaptations to climate change. We have seen this practically in our projects where women associations and women users are very active in water safety planning and the implementation of water safety plans that protect the WASH facility and the water source. Women also contribute to strengthening community multi-village scheme management. What that means is they actually contribute to a sustainable WASH facility by leading it properly, being part of the leadership and being part of sustaining it financially and also in terms of leadership. It is therefore very important to engage women and the provision of climate resilient WASH and to empower them as well.

Caroline Maxwell: Excellent, thank you Tseguereda. Although women are really at risk and so on, it's encouraging to hear that women can be part of the solution. We have our next speaker, Priya Nath, and Priya is our Senior Advisor for Equality, Inclusion and Rights. Priya, I was just thinking, we were talking to Tseguereda about the barriers women face, but we know that there are maybe other groups and communities who have been made vulnerable, and these climate resilient WASH services, how can they be more inclusive for vulnerable communities?

Priya Nath: As everyone else has said, what we already know from experience and current reality is that it's the people that are facing some inequalities already – such as people with disabilities, people living in slums or informal settlements, older people, or people who already live at that extreme edge of poverty – they are the ones that are going to really feel the impacts of climate change the most. But what we also know is that doesn't have to be the case if the solutions and the responses and adaptations to climate change are designed with them in mind and with their involvement.

So if I focus in on the situation of people living with disabilities in the countries where we work, people with disabilities can be said to be actually the largest minority group in the world. They make up 15-20% of the population globally and actually 80% of those people with disabilities live in the global south. So essentially, the disability rates are higher in the countries where we are working, and this is a really important thing to factor into any solutions, any planning, any adaptation measures. We know also that persons with disabilities are more likely to live in disaster-prone areas. They frequently are excluded already from any sort of emergency preparedness and sometimes even WASH preparedness planning. And they have higher rates of morbidity or mortality and are vulnerable to gender-based violence and abuse, especially when there's a crisis going on. But the solutions for making sure that climate resilient WASH services are more inclusive, there's a number of them.

Firstly, as WaterAid, we've already learnt a lot around how to make service design more inclusive and more accessible for people living with disabilities, or for older people. So we need to make sure that this commitment on what we call inclusive and universal design is transferred over to all climate-resilient WASH technologies and designs. Because the risk is that when things such as water points and toilets get adapted to make them more resilient to flooding or heavy rainfall, they can sometimes be put up on higher platforms, or they're made even harder to access for people who have an impairment or some sort or people who have mobility issues. So we need to keep checking with all of the people in a community where we work, not just the most mobile and the strongest people, that the structures and the adaptations to these basic services actually work for them.

The second thing is that information and knowledge about climate change and WASH needs to be shared in a way that it can reach through to different parts of the population. Even those who are not in school settings or not participating in community or local meetings - people who can't read and write or who have very low vision, for example. So when we talk about resilience or emergency preparedness planning, it has to be in the formats and the ways that reach to those parts of society that are often called, and known to be, the hardest to reach.

Thirdly, we have to make sure that people with disabilities and their representative organisations are actually involved in the planning and the designing of the climate resilient WASH services and approaches with us. They need to be our partners. They need to be seen as the experts because at the end of the day, they have the knowledge and the lived experience that can help us in the process of identifying, planning and implementing some very good context-specific climate change, risk reduction and adaptation measures.

And finally, we need to be adapting a little bit more so that we are tracking the data and we're monitoring, so that we better understand the specific impacts of climate on WASH access for different parts of the population, not just assuming that everyone is impacted in the same way. So what specifically is the impact of climate change on WASH for people with disabilities compared to those without disabilities? What makes it harder for them? What are the overlapping characteristics that make it harder for some people? For example, what is the experience and requirements of women living with disabilities compared to women without disabilities, or experiences and requirements of women living in slums or informal settlements? So just understanding how different identities are really impacted in different ways, we need better information about this, better data and better tracking that the adaptations that are made, are made with them in mind.

So I think I would finish by saying that if climate-resilient WASH approaches are designed with some of the hardest to reach and most vulnerable at the front of our minds, and in partnership with them, then they will actually work for everyone. But if we don't take into account their specific requirements, their needs and their vulnerabilities, then our solutions will only be relevant and useful for a smaller section of the population. And unfortunately, what we will be doing is further entrenching some inequalities and some risks for some people.

Caroline Maxwell: Thank you so much, Priya. And it's so true. We really need to put inclusion at the heart of designing these programmes and responding, and really addressing those specific needs of the hard-to-reach groups. So thanks so much for that, Priya. We will now fly virtually back to Africa, this time to Ghana in West Africa. And I'm delighted to introduce our final speaker, Jesse Danku, Head of Sustainable Programmes. So Jesse, we've heard from all the different speakers. It will be nice to hear from you: what are some innovative examples of climate resilient WASH in the context of Ghana?

Jesse Danku: Thank you, Caroline. Before I zoom into the innovations, I'll gladly say that [at] WaterAid, we acknowledge that climate change issues cannot be solved by one organisation alone, so we embrace collaboration. And we also try to use existing platforms and government initiatives.

So what are some of the innovations that we have come up with in Ghana? We are promoting climate-resilient household latrines, because one way of polluting water is through open defecation and sometimes during flooding, these household latrines - if they are not built well - they will collapse and they also are able to pollute groundwater. So we ensure that the household latrines that they are using are climate-resilient; they are lined or we use other means to protect it so that it saves them.

We provide drinking troughs for animals because during the dry season, it is difficult for them to get water to drink, and these are attached to our water systems, which are extended far away from the fetching point so that they can have access to water.

And in all of these, we identify flood-prone communities to be able to factor the design of these sort of facilities that can withstand changing climatic conditions appropriately, especially flooding. And so this guides us to do that. We want to improve livelihoods in our WASH programming so one of the things we do is that our water systems are extended to specific farming areas to provide livelihoods, especially dry season farming for women especially, so that they can get their nutritional values - and for their babies as well. We encourage communities to plant trees around our water fetching points, especially the sources, so that even though we know those are not the direct recharge areas, they may still contribute to increasing the quantity of water underground.

So in all of this, to be able to engage governments, we have designed a campaign. And before we did this, we conducted in-depth research so that whatever action we are taking is backed by science or backed by data. 1And for Ghana and for WaterAid, our priorities are that governments will prioritise drinking water especially, in all [climate change] adaptation plans, and we have been engaging governments to see how we can improve climate adaptation plans to include integrating drinking water and other WASH aspects into it, so that in the long run, it benefits the communities or the areas, the geographies that suffer most from the impacts of climate change.

Just to say that, in identifying our climate-resilient household latrine toilets, we ensure that we determine the water table [level] so that we are not, through this programming or through this exercise, directly polluting the groundwater. So the groundwater table becomes very important, the determination of it becomes very important and we factored this into our WASH programming. Thank you very much.

Caroline Maxwell: Thank you so much, that really helps to bring it to life. So we all know that COP will be happening in a few months time – COP27. Jonathan, will COP27 be important for the issues that we've discussed?

Jonathan Farr: Thanks, Caroline. I mean, the fact is that we need to see a global approach to climate change; something where every country has to play their part to cut emissions, but also to build the pathway to a greener future. And that's not just a future where there's low emissions, but also low pollution of water supplies and also where ecosystems are protected. And this can't be done by individual countries. Many rivers flow across many national boundaries, and so we need that international collaboration. And we're already seeing, at the past 27 UN climate meetings, huge progress. Not enough. But still, things are moving forward and, certainly in the last years, [so is our] understanding about not just what wealthy industrialised high-carbon countries can do to stop carbon, but what it means for poorer countries who've got very small emissions to speak of but are picking up the tab for our failure to cut carbon quickly enough.

And the question we want to see at COP27 is how do we translate that international ambition? Those targets, the big pledges of climate finance – how do we see that in action on the ground and how do we get that money to where it matters? And that is the sort of thing that, not just WaterAid, but actually a lot of the development and water community are doing to try and get that on the agenda. It's what African governments and Asian governments are putting on the agenda. And we're seeing real engagement with that. So I think that what COP27 can do is it can set the flag in the distance, something to aim for and begin that global conversation about how we can realise, not just avoiding the climate crisis, but building a higher standard of living – the sort of living that we in the UK expect, and what everyone has a human right to, which is decent toilets, clean water and access to hygiene so that people can be healthy and can prosper.

Caroline Maxwell: Thank you so much, Jon. Really well said there and a challenge for us all really, particularly those of us who do campaigning on these important issues. So thanks everyone for joining. I hope you've enjoyed it as much as we have. Do spread the word and do watch this space for our next Twitter Space discussion. Thank you and enjoy the rest of your days or evenings, depending on your time zone. Thanks very much. Bye now.

Follow @WaterAid on Twitter for details of all our future Twitter Spaces.

Top image: Fatimata Coulibaly, 29, takes a reading of the water meter for her village's water tower in Kakounouso, Samabogo, Circle of Bla, Segou Region, Mali, February 2019.